Sacramento Kings take a swing at checkout-free tech

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Checkout-free tech has only just left the gate, but has tons of promise as a way to shed lines and collect data — just the mix that sports facilities are looking for.

The Sacramento Kings plan to open the new NBA season this fall with a checkout-free store in the Golden 1 Center, the team's high-tech arena which opened in 2016. The Kings deployment is not alone, as Standard Cognition this week announced the Boston Red Sox will deploy checkout-free technology at the new minor league ballpark in Worcester, Mass., when it opens in 2021.

Sparked by Amazon Go, most of the checkout-free deployments have come at smaller grocery stores, convenience stores, or venues that are manufactured specifically for the checkout-free concept. The trick is finding spots that can accommodate the technology — which is designed to recognize items and charge the user's e-commerce account — in locations that aren't necessarily designed for checkout-free shopping and payments.

Sporting events often adopt new payment technology early. Visa has used the Olympics for years as a testing ground for innovation, and teams such as the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Rays are aggressively trying to reduce cash use in their facilities. And the Yankees and the Dodgers have both partnered with Postmates to power mobile order and pay inside stadiums.

Much like airports, stadiums have been removing paper and PDF tickets in favor of mobile app ticketing for the past several years. That's habit-forming for the fans, and also fits well with the customer identification required for checkout-free stores. The Kings store uses Zippin's technology, and the fans access the store through check-in via the Kings app or Zippin's app, which previously registered the users' payment credentials.

The Kings, while not particularly successful on the court, are famed for jumping on board with cutting-edge technology. The new arena features high-speed internet connections, a 6,000 square-foot data center that monitors social media comments about fan experience, sensors that tell fans which restrooms have the shortest lines, and more than a thousand WiFi access points.

The Kings' owner, Vivek Ranadive, is a Silicon Valley veteran and founder of Tibco, a real-time computing company; and Teknekron Software, which develops stock trading technology. Ranadive bought the team with the idea of making the Kings a high-tech franchise. Even before the new arena opened, the Kings were one of the first sports teams to accept bitcoin in 2014.

"When we opened the arena we had a list of places where we found friction. We found stuff like parking, standing in line, and ordering food," said Ryan Montoya, the Sacramento Kings' chief technology officer. "With concessions we're trying to fine tune another part of that experience."

The Kings' goal is to expand checkout-free purchases based on what it learns from the original deployment, which will be on the arena's main concourse. The team has not replaced concession stands, and like most checkout-free stores retains the option of using traditional payment methods.

Montoya expects the concept will work in the arena since it's already designed to accommodate a mobile-only experience. The existing concession stands support mobile order and pay, and some of the arena's turnstiles have handheld scanners that enable 1,000 people per hour to enter the facility.

"People have a ton of things that they struggle to do every day. We're trying to make things as easy as possible," Montoya said.

Despite the category's growing pains — or perhaps because of that — investment is pouring into technology companies that are developing checkout-free technology. The attraction is the video record of purchases, and access to granular data that measures what people purchase — and also how, by reading details such as how people pick up items, or if they read information on packaging.

Montoya did not list marketing or cross-selling as a benefit, focusing instead on user experience. But the combination of checkout-free purchases and the team's other mobile and sensor technology will provide actionable intelligence for new fan engagement ideas.

"Someone who’s already purchased a ticket is a known user with a registered payment credential, especially in a bar code/cell phone activated experience," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. "Opening up a checkout-free cabinet or pop-up store with autonomous checkout is a natural extension for enhancing the check-in experience with a known user. This would allow personalization in a venue that has always been commoditized across the entire fanbase."

As for the Red Sox deployment, a Standard Cognition spokesperson said in an email that the Red Sox franchise plans to expand the technology to other stadiums in the organization.

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